2002 Australia Day Address – Dr Tim Flannery
Equally important to achieving environmental sustainability as a priority for our nation is recognising the role that Aboriginal people played in shaping this land, for it is only by doing so, that we will be able to address critical aspects of our troubled past. When James Cook sailed up the east coast of Australia in 1770, he remarked that the land looked like a gentleman’s park. And indeed it was, for those eucalypt groves set in grassy plains were the result of 45,000 years of careful management by Aboriginal people. They, just like the Europeans, irrevocably changed the land when they first arrived – but thereafter they crafted it with fire and hunting, creating something new. It was that ‘something new’ that we now recognise as the distinctive Australian landscape. Thus, in a very real sense, this land is human-made – a handicraft of the Aboriginal people.
This concept has profound implications. It means that there is no Australian wilderness, and no national park that can exist in its pre-1788 form without the ongoing input of people. All of the continent must be managed or it will change in ways that we will not like. This is one reason why the depopulation of the outback is so distressing – without people, vast areas of the continent will go unmanaged. If we accept this view, it implies that there is an important management role for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in all reserved lands.
We are clearly indebted to Aboriginal people for our land in more ways than one, and their skills and knowledge are vital to the continuance of the Australia we know and love. Having said this, romanticising Aboriginal cultures is not helpful. Reconciliation must be undertaken on Aboriginal terms – not with some fictional or idealised people or nation, but with Aboriginal communities in their full diversity throughout this land. We need to listen carefully to what they have to say, and assist them in achieving their desires.